Arsenal are a team and club synonymous with a lot of things: attractive football, the famous red and white, class and integrity and a desire to do things ‘the right way.’ But one stereotype that’s shrouded the club in a slightly less positive light is that the Gunners are terrible at defending. It’s difficult to say that such criticism is unjustified when the likes of Igors Stepanovs, Pascal Cygan and Armand Traoré have occupied berths in the back four in the past, and goals have been conceded with the kind of sloppiness not even demonstrated by hungover, overweight, balding ‘athletes’ in Sunday League. But in recent times, it’s become something of an outdated cliché, particularly as Arsenal ended the 12/13 season with the second best defensive record in the league (top four is basically a trophy, right?).
Unfortunately, I’m told that I’m not as much of an expert as I think I am, but I don’t think you have to be a world-class coach to deduce that Arsenal’s defensive shortcomings were less a problem with personnel but rather organisation, discipline and others aspects of the game that need to be developed on the training pitch as opposed to in the transfer market. Certainly now, I genuinely don’t think many teams in Europe have a better trio of centre-halves at their disposal than Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen. Beyond that though, following the departures of the (much-maligned, admittedly) duo of Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci, the Gunners’ rearguard looks a little threadbare.
Ignasi Miquel has had some experience in the first team but, for me at least, has never really looked the real deal. The U21s house a rough diamond in the form of Isaac Hayden, who impressed massively in the NextGen Series, but one has to doubt his ability to make the significant leap from academy/reserve team football to the Premier League. I think if the manager had such faith in him at this moment in time, he’d have included him in the squad for the tour of Asia. So in terms of current personnel, there isn’t exactly a wealth of options for Arsenal in the centre of defence.
My compulsive urge to scribble down my musings comes after the club were yesterday linked with Málaga right-back Jesús Gámez. Having poached Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal from them in the last 12 months, the Spanish club has served Arsenal well – or the Gunners have become masters of espionage in robbing them of their prized gems, depending on your vantage point. If Arsène Wenger and his team of scouts and negotiators think Gámez is the best option, who am I to argue? But whilst it remains a rumour and nothing more, I’m a little sceptical, and not even due to the fact I know even less about him than I do about quantum physics. He could be a world class prospect for all I know, and with the Gunners’ aforementioned record of deals with Málaga, I’m sure it would pan out well.
But should a right-back be at the top of the list of priorities? As alluded to earlier, Arsenal are very short in terms of numbers in the central defensive department. Step forward, Bacary Sagna. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I have cited, probably a dozen times, how I rated Sagna’s colossal display at the heart of the defence at the Stadium of Light in February as the individual performance of Arsenal’s season. He was truly outstanding; the type of display that typifies everything some, or all according to the tabloids, fans have wanted for years – a strong, commanding presence with an indomitable attitude. Basically, John Terry, but without the being-a-vile-human-being bit.
No, I’m not really saying that one performance there equates Sagna with Terry who, for all his shortcomings as a person, is undoubtedly one of the finest defenders we’ve seen since the turn of the century. But even last season when criticism grew after a few shaky performances, nobody would ever question Sagna’s passion and sheer desire to win, and such psychological traits perhaps mean he is better suited to a more central role where he will be put under more sustained pressure than he would out wide.
He hasn’t had a run in the team at centre-back on a competitive basis (although he’s featured there several times in pre-season), and this could prove to be a false flag – in the way players like Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh actually looked seriously competent at the beginning of their Arsenal careers before fading into absolute laughing stocks. The point anyway, is that Sagna is an option at centre-back; one that the club will probably utilise throughout the season.
However, Sagna is still primarily a right-back – a position where there is not exactly a dearth of choices for the manager. Carl Jenkinson is very much on an upward curve and would consider this season a chance to really challenge Sagna and making the right-back spot his own. As an understudy to him, Arsenal boast the extremely promising talent of Hector Bellerin who many expect to make some sort of mark on the first-team picture in the coming season. The signing of Gámez would surely, to use a Wengerism, ‘kill’ Bellerin’s career at Arsenal by eliminating any prospect of game time.
I appreciate the relative hypocrisy in wanting to give Bellerin a chance but not Hayden, but I do think the scenarios are very different. Firstly, the Spaniard has far more international experience under his belt than his English counterpart (he’s currently at the U19 European Championships), and secondly, I’d argue that, particularly for a younger player, playing in the middle is tougher and more demanding than the job required of a full-back. Certainly in the Premier League where the pace is notoriously rapid, a role at the heart of the defence is more befitting for an experienced head than a promising youngster – unique talents like Raphaël Varane and Matija Nastasić aside.
But in a surprisingly enjoyable discussion on social media, I found myself agreeing that I would sooner see Sagna play at centre-half and Bellerin at right-back rather than perhaps Sagna at right-back and Miquel in a central role should Jenkinson, Vermaelen and one of Koscielny and Mertesacker be struck down by injuries at one time. All hypothetical but interesting to ponder.
But even with the Frenchman bolstering the numbers in the middle, I’d still argue that Arsenal are a little short. Vermaelen is already expected to miss the first couple of months of the season. All it takes is an injury or suspension to Mertesacker or Koscielny and they’re down to the bare bones again. I, for one, would not trust Miquel or Hayden, nascent as he is, to come in for a North London Derby, for example. Anything to avoid getting even remotely close to the scenario Arsenal faced at Old Trafford in 2011.
There’s a similar problem at left-back. Whilst undoubtedly a bit of a liability at times, André Santos’ incompetence was grossly overplayed – with quite outrageous claims that he is the worst player to ever pull on the red and white jersey (people are entitled to their opinion, but those who put Santos on that pedestal clearly haven’t seen the likes of Stepanovs, Kaba Diawara or the dozens of amateurs to play for the club well before my time). Such hyperbole has really become my biggest footballing bugbear. I’m not trying to be some iconoclastic hipster, I’m just pointing out what I see. We’ve had the same with Gervinho and I’m sure the next victim won’t have to wait long either to be hit by a barrage of abuse. Unsurprisingly it’s the same people, Piers Morgan to name but one, who criticise so vehemently now that praised them with such vigour upon arrival where, lest we forget, both Gervinho and Santos looked like pretty shrewd additions to the squad.
Apologies, I digress. The issue at left-back is that, like Vermaelen, Monreal has been sidelined for a significant period, leaving Kieran Gibbs as the only recognised player in that position. You’ll do well to find a bigger Gibbs fan than yours truly, but his injury record is shocking, and Arsenal simply cannot afford to rely on him until the return of Monreal in October, or knowing the Gunners’ history with predicting comeback times, 2014. Miquel is then next in line and I simply don’t think he’s good enough for this level. I accept I’m probably on my own here, but I’d honestly rather have kept Santos as a bit-part player. He’s really not that egregious. Alas, he’s departed to the sound of mass jubilation and ideally Arsenal now need to find a versatile defender to plug the various gaps in the squad.
Luiz Gustavo could well be the perfect signing. Despite establishing himself as a terrific defensive midfielder, the Brazilian is also more than competent as either a centre-half, or indeed a left-back, thus just about ticking every box. The papers have made him available at prices as low as £8million but, even as he’s fallen further down the pecking order following the arrival of Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona, quite why Gustavo would want to leave Bayern Munich I simply don’t know. It would be something of a longshot, but a coup if Arsenal could pull it off – one that would leave them well stocked in all defensive areas.
The need for a striker is well-documented, but if the Gunners are to really progress next season and give themselves a shot at the title, reinforcements are needed at the back, too. Now is not the time to be overly-prudent; Arsenal simply have to spend the money we’re told they’ve got, spend it well and, perhaps equally importantly, spend it soon. They cannot afford to play catch-up yet again.
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